The grammar of space in two new sign languages

Carol Padden, Irit Meir, Mark Aronoff, Wendy Sandler

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Sign languages use space because they can. In previous work on verb agreement in sign languages, we have discussed “the ability of a language produced in space to represent certain spatial and visual concepts iconically” (Aronoff, Meir & Sandler, 2005). We resolved in that work what we called “the paradox of sign language morphology.” Although all sign languages that had been well studied up to that point showed a particular form of complex simultaneous non-affixal verb agreement that has no simple parallel in the morphology of spoken languages, they did not show much “run of the mill” sequential affixal morphology. Why should a language acquire complex morphology before it acquires simple morphology, why sign languages and why this particular sort of morphology? We argued that the agreement morphology of sign languages is based on an iconic use of space, which sign languages accommodate readily, and that this iconicity is what leads to the quick development of the system. Linear affixal morphology, by contrast, is much slower to emerge and much more varied, precisely because it is not iconic. In this chapter, we will focus a much finer lens on the iconically based grammatical use of space in sign languages. Specifically, we will look at the actual production of verb forms where we expect space to be used. We will compare forms produced across two or three generations of signers of two young sign languages, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) and Israeli Sign Language (ISL).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSign Languages
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9780511712203
ISBN (Print)9780521883702
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2010

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2010.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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